On October 4 the Church celebrates the feast of St. Francis of Assisi, the “Little Poor Man” whose life has inspired people of all faiths for over 800 years. G. K. Chesterton said of St. Francis, “He was a poet whose entire life was a poem.” And certainly most of us are familiar with the poem’s main events: St. Francis embracing the leper, Christ asking him to rebuild his Church, St. Francis disrobing and renouncing all of his possessions, risking his life to preach to the Sultan, and becoming the first person ever recorded to have the stigmata.
The downside of being so familiar with a saint’s life story, however, is that it starts to seem more like a fairy tale and less like a true account of a real person’s faith and heroism that can be an inspiration to us to live our lives differently today. It would be a tragedy to do this with St. Francis, because his life is overflowing with inspiration for anyone who would like to live the gospel and grow closer to God. And while the stories of Francis preaching to the birds, taming the wolf of Gubbio, and fasting for forty days on half a loaf of bread are beautiful and deeply moving, it may be difficult for some people to see how these events can be applied to the issues we face today. For those of us who feel that we have little in common with St. Francis the miracle worker, it may be helpful to look at Francis before his conversion. This can help us remember that he was a real man, with real ambitions, desires, and weaknesses, just like us, who was able, with God’s grace, to choose the things of heaven over the things of the world.
St. Francis of Assisi was born at the end of 1181 or the beginning of 1182 to Peter and Pica Bernadone. His biographers agree that Francis was brought up in the luxury and vanity of the time. Francis learned Latin, his catechism, and how to read and write in school, but as a young man he was most influenced by the stories of knights and tales of chivalry he learned from the troubadors who had spread into Italy from France. These poets sang about the legends of Charlemagne, King Arthur, and the knights who imitated their bravery, and these stories made quite an impact on the young Francis. He was generous with his friends and the poor, and at one point he resolved that he would never refuse any one who begged alms from him. Thomas of Celano, one of his first biographers, tells us, “Avoiding wounding anyone, and being most courteous to all, he made himself universally loved.” These traits: his love for the tales of chivalry, his generosity towards the poor, and his courtesy to everyone he met remained with Francis always, and they were the seeds of the great sanctity that would later mark his life.
Francis grew up during a time of constant warfare, when cities were continually fighting one another, and fame was to be achieved in battle. When Francis was about 25 years old, a dispute arose between the German princes and Pope Innocent III and war broke out. Like many other soldiers from Italy, Francis decided to join the papal armies. He spent a small fortune preparing the clothing, armor, and equipment he would need for battle, and then set out in haste towards Apulia, in southern Italy. Along the way he met a knight who was dressed in rags, and moved with pity, Francis removed the embroidered garments he was wearing and gave them to him. That night, after he went to sleep he had a dream. In the dream his father’s house was filled with weapons and soldiers, and he saw a beautiful princess who was going to be his bride. When he awoke, he was momentarily filled with joy, but after some reflection Francis was troubled, because he concluded that the dream did not symbolize the earthly honor and glory he had longed for. He journeyed on, though, and the next night he stopped at Spoleto. While he slept he heard a voice telling him to go back to his own country, where it would be revealed to him what he should do next. The following day he returned to Assisi, where it became obvious to the people who knew him that he was a changed man.
As was their custom, Francis’ friends asked him to throw a party, and he did. He could no longer enjoy the carousing and drinking, and so, late that night, as everyone left the banquet hall, he began to pray. His biographer, Thomas of Celano, writes:
“Then it was that divine grace came upon him, enlightening him as to the nothingness of earth’s vanities and revealing to him the invisible realities. Suddenly, he was inundated with such a torrent of love, submerged in such sweetness, that he stood there motionless, neither seeing nor hearing anything.” In time he “lost all taste for business and gradually he was seen to withdraw from the world.”
After this revelation nothing of the world could satisfy him and he could only find contentment in the things of God. Even though he did not yet know exactly what God was calling him to do, he began to spend his time in prayer and meditation, trusting that God would show him the way. We know the rest of the story, and we know the incredible impact St. Francis’ life had on the people who he met while he lived, and on all those who have read or heard about him over the past eight centuries. There is a lesson to be learned in every single detail and event of the life of St. Francis, and this story is no different. We see Francis’ desire to do great things, heroic things; his generosity to all; and his courtesy to everyone he met. These were a fertile place for God’s grace to grow. We see Francis struggle with God’s call, resist it for a time but then accept it. And then, the moment of grace, as he walked out into the night after the last party he would ever throw for his friends: he experiences God’s consolation, and clearly sees the emptiness of the world. Afterwards, he spends time in prayer, not knowing what to do next, but trusting that God would help him.
Each of us can apply this example to our own lives. Maybe the results will not be quite as remarkable as those of St. Francis’ life, but if we persist in charity and good works; if we listen to God’s voice when he calls us; and if we remain open when He shows us that power, popularity, money, and possessions—all that the world offers us—will never satisfy us; we will be changed. We will want to live more simply, so that we can give more to those in need, we will be filled with the joy that only God can give, and we will without a doubt grow closer to God, and be able to share our faith more authentically. Even in this life we will experience a taste of what St. Paul wrote, and what Francis lived out so beautifully: “eye has not seen, and ear has not heard, . . . what God has prepared for those who love him.” (1 Cor. 2:9)